Thursday, October 16, 2003

Copyright 2003 Bergen Record Corporation
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Suit faults Cardinale as landlord in Fort Lee

A tenant and a former tenant say their landlord, state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, illegally rented them a rickety old Fort Lee home that leaked oil and made them sick.

A lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the veteran legislator of collecting nearly $2,500 per month in rent on two apartments in the Kaufers Lane home despite not having the required certificate of continued occupancy for the property.

When the home's oil tank sprang a leak in February, one tenant said, the fumes gave her headaches and a bloody nose while destroying much of her wardrobe. To make matters worse, she said, Cardinale wouldn't let her out of her lease or return her security deposit.

"It's unfair and illegal," said 29-year-old [NAME REMOVED UPON DEMAND OF INDIVIDUAL NAMED IN ARTICLE], an insurance company manager who lived in the apartment for four years. "As a senator, I thought he would have a higher regard for the law."

Cardinale said he could not comment on most of the accusations because he hadn't yet seen the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Hackensack.

"When attorneys file papers, they say some very inflammatory things," the state senator said Wednesday. "Before I comment on this, I should have the advice of my attorney."

However, Cardinale said the lack of a certificate of continued occupancy was simply the result of an administrative error that was quickly corrected.

Cardinale, a Republican from Demarest, has served in the Senate since 1981. He is running for reelection next month.

[NAME REMOVED], who no longer lives in the house, and tenant Vincent Pollina are seeking unspecified monetary damages from Cardinale and Kaufers Lane Realty, a real estate company that owns the property and has several partners, including Cardinale. The other defendants are Dowling Oil Co. and Preferred Tank Services.

The conflict surfaced Feb. 28, when the Fort Lee Department of Health received a report of an oil leak at the home, according to a department report. Health officials, along with the Fire and Police departments and the Bergen County Hazmat team, responded and found a leaking 275-gallon above-ground oil tank.

The Health Department declared the property uninhabitable and initiated a cleanup that required the removal of 30,000 pounds of contaminated soil, according to the department report.

"There was no question in my mind [the home] was uninhabitable," said Fort Lee Health Officer Stephen Wielkocz. "There was a considerable fuel oil odor. It can certainly make you sick."

City officials put Pollina and [NAME REMOVED] in local hotels during the cleanup, which took about three weeks.

Then, on March 20, the city fined Cardinale $300 for not having a certificate of continued occupancy for the two apartments.

Cardinale said he hasn't paid the fine and isn't sure that he will have to. He said the only reason he didn't have the certificate is because when Kaufers Lane Realty bought the property, the broker thought Kaufers Lane applied for the certificate, while Kaufers Lane expected the broker to do it.

A certificate was eventually issued for the property in July, according to the lawsuit.

Pollina has moved back into the house, where he pays $986 a month for the downstairs apartment. [NAME REMOVED], who was paying $1,460 for the upstairs apartment, has moved to Edgewater.

[NAME REMOVED] sent a letter to Cardinale in March saying that she wanted out of her month-to-month lease. But Cardinale wrote back that she owed rent for March and April and therefore likely would not receive her security deposit, equal to a month's rent.

The letter, included in the court filing, states that she should pay rent for March because she stayed for free at a hotel for much of the month - a bill that Cardinale said he paid. As for the April rent, the letter says she didn't submit her notice in time to get out of that month's commitment.

"It would seem that your unpaid obligations will exceed the amount of your security plus interest," Cardinale wrote.

The lawsuit claims that Cardinale owes both [NAME REMOVED] and Pollina far more than their security deposits.

Rosemarie Arnold, the attorney for both, claims the defendants must fork over back rent her clients paid while the property was not certified by the city. Also, she is seeking payment for their medical expenses and general pain and suffering.

"I think [Cardinale's letter] is despicable," Arnold said. "This place is a slum."